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Ceremonies Held Across San Diego County To Honor 9/11 Victims, First Responders

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On the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we’re focusing on a deadly issue firefighters deal with all the time. Not the immediate danger of going into a burning building, but another health threat — cancer.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 On the 18th anniversary of the nine 11 attacks. We're focusing on a deadly issue. Fighter fighters deal with all the time. Not the immediate danger of going into a burning building, but another health threat. Cancer. Joining me are Captain Jesse Conner and firefighter Kyle O'Neil from the San Diego Fire and rescue department. Captain Connor is also the president of the San Diego Firefighters Association. And Kyle is the cancer and health coordinator with the department. Welcome to you both. Thank you man. Thanks for having us. Happy to be here. So Kyle, I want to start with you. You are the cancer and health coordinator with the department. What does that title entail? So my position was dead. It was developed based on the idea that I could help create a, an educate a department members on awareness and prevention, um, techniques, um, as well as putting together comprehensive plans going forward is how we'll, we're going to do to accomplish these, these tasks that they're trying to do is, um, allow my position to attack anything, um, related to cancer prevention.

Speaker 1: 01:07 So, and it also has to deal with, um, members of the department that gets sick and, and when they get a diagnosis, what does that mean? And as a cancer survivor, you're uniquely qualified for this position. You could say that. Absolutely. Um, you know, I feel emotionally, um, drawn to this position. I feel like this position requires somebody that's going to be very passionate about and changing this culture that we live in. Uh, the fire department culture is used to make, you know, make this known. They're, they're a bit resistant to change. And that makes it hard. Um, when you're trying to bring stuff in like this and trying to change the actual way we do our operations in different things within, within the stations. And Captain Connor and Kyle, I want to ask you all, both when you became firefighters, um, were you aware of the risk associated with cancer?

Speaker 1: 02:00 I was not. Uh, when you come on the job and go through the Fire Academy, you're taught to handle the emergencies that you can see cancers kind of that, that unforeseen circumstance. You don't know that it's working in the background. You're exposed to carcinogens through smoke products that combustion for a long duration and you're absorbing, you're inhaling those things. And Kyle, I know for you, you've had that personal experience of getting the diagnosis. Um, what emotion ran through your own body when you got that diagnosis? I saw at the time when I got diagnosed, I was 33 years old. Um, one of the things that we'll point out is that they're finding that younger people are getting cancer at a higher rates in the fire service. So it's important to, you know, take that into, into consideration. Um, you know, for me mind just was, I wasn't feeling well.

Speaker 1: 02:52 I went into the doctor and what I thought I was going to be in an hour visit at the er turned into an eight hour day. I like to, you know, throw it out there that there's many other people on the, our department here in San Diego that have gone through similar issues and they're, um, you know, we always keep them in mind when I'm talking about this because they're the ones I'm trying to, uh, were, were the people when you look at what's going on, these are the faces that are affected by this. So, um, yeah, so it's, it, you know, it's, and it's challenging. Um, the, I spent a year and a half trying to get my self back together. Um, I was completely off the job for a year, uh, dealing with, you know, multiple surgeries, treatments and different things and then made it back to light duty. And I was just trying to get my strength back and my energy and, and, and with such a demanding physically job, we just, you know, took a long time to recover. I'm actually feel like after being in remission for almost two years now, I'm still recovering from everything I went through.

Speaker 2: 03:52 And, and, uh, captain Conner, how prevalent is this within the fire department overall? The, the average is we're about 9%, uh, at risk, at, you know, greater, uh, chance of, of developing cancer than the general population. Um, and so I can speak to San Diego, you know, we've, we've had a dozen or so in the last few years of, of our personnel that have been diagnosed with cancer. So, um, it, it is fairly prevalent. Um, and, and even one case if it's preventable is too much. And so then what is the fire department doing to lower the risk? So, as Kyle alluded to, it's a lot of it's a culture change. Uh, one we had to identify the problem. So historically speaking, we'd go to fires, we put fires out, we'd go home. Uh, and, and that was kind of our job and we weren't realizing all of the, uh, you know, exposure to carcinogens.

Speaker 2: 04:48 We were, we were, you know, putting ourselves to, uh, so, so when something burns it off gases, hydrocarbons and a bunch of harmful chemicals, uh, we always thought that by wearing an SCBA or a breathing apparatus that we're protecting our lungs, but we didn't realize that you can also absorb those into your skin. Um, that stuff gets into your fire gear, it gets into your equipment. And then what do we do? The fires out. So we take all that equipment off and we put it back on the apparatus with us. We drive around with it, we come back to station, we have [inaudible] on us. Um, and, and culturally we weren't aware that that stuff was killing us. So the fire department one identified that there is a national trend in higher cancer rates among firefighters. So fortunately through collaboration with San Diego city fire department and San Diego city firefighters look one 45, we developed the cancer awareness and prevention program.

Speaker 2: 05:41 Um, and, and Kyle has really been educating the members. Uh, so now we're wearing our breathing apparatus, not only during the fire, but after the fire, when we're sifting through the debris and making sure all the embers are out, because all of that stuff is still offgassing. Um, we're now, uh, aware that we absorb these, these products through our skin. So following the fire, we're removing our gear, we're washing it off, it's called gross decontamination at scene. Uh, we're wiping ourselves down with, uh, essentially, you know, baby wipes or cleaning wipes and then we're returning to the fire stations. We're washing our equipment right away. We're taking showers, we're getting out of that stuff. Um, and I can let Kyle speak to, to some of the other,

Speaker 1: 06:25 oh, well, I was gonna ask, I mean, you know, because not only are you, um, working on prevention, um, a big part of this is support as well. For those firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer. Kyle, how are you all working to support those firefighters? So part of my job is to make sure that somebody who gets a diagnosis is, I can walk them through the steps that it takes to get through the work comp system because, um, cancer is a presumptive illness here in the state of California for both fire and, and law enforcement. And so it's important to note about that is because of our, because of what we do for a living and what our job entails, we're being exposed and, uh, the presumption law is really spread, um, almost to every state, um, at this point to some degree. And it has some, there's some variables in there as far as what cancers it covers and what we're very fortunate to have that, that coverage, uh, that keeps us protected.

Speaker 1: 07:23 It keeps our families protected. Um, if, if we do get a diagnosis, so that's part of what I'll do is walk them through, walk the individual through what the paperwork process is, and then I'll, you know, if I have to personally take them down there or do what I have to do to make sure that it gets done and they get the correct care they need. Well, Kyle O'Neil and Captain Jesse Connor. I know I speak for many when I say we are so grateful for all that you all do with the San Diego Fire Department. We really appreciate it and thank you so much for coming in. Thank you. Thank you for having us. Thanks for having us. Thank you.

Speaker 3: 07:57 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.